Of all the music I’ve sung throughout my life, perhaps nothing touches me more than songs of longing and parting. In those tunes water plays an important role. That really is not a surprise. Without water life cannot exist.
Water is the essence of life. According to the United States Geological Service, the human body is at least 60% water. Other sources indicate the amount of water that makes up our bodies varies depending on age and gender. Water is so essential to survival that without water we will perish within three days. In contrast, without food we can survive up to 40 days or so.
Not only is water important to our bodies, water plays an important role in the human spirit and soul. Water provides a gathering place in arid regions. In deserts the oasis offers hydration and respite. In swamps and marshes, water provides habitat for a myriad of organisms. On the shores of large lakes and oceans beaches invite people to relax and swim, and large ocean-going vessels dock to load and unload their cargo.
Perhaps one of the reasons water features so largely in stories and song is the ability water has to both provide a way to transport humans, and as a border to divide land and animal alike.
In our modern era we may not even consider crossing over water to be an issue of concern at all. We have bridges, tunnels, ferries and air planes to safely transport us from one bank to the other. Not that long ago, though, crossing over water could be dangerous and threatening. A calm stream turns into a raging river without warning when a heavy rainfall dumps thousands of gallons into the watershed. The Great Lakes are filled with sunken ships that went down during high waves and gales. Watch any old Western film about the wagon train traveling across the continent. Rivers posed a challenge that could delay the trip by many days.
Even today with all our technology, we still face challenges and dangers in crossing over water. Bridges collapse. Airplanes are lost at sea. Ships sink. Lives forever lost to the waters.
One of my favorite songs is as mysterious in its origins as it is in its meaning, but it features a theme found in many old English folk songs: The Water Is Wide. In the era
before bridges and airplanes, a lake, an ocean, or even a river is a border too large, separating lovers and families and friends. The longing to be with that lover is heartwrenching when the obstacles of the waters make the separation permanent.
Carrickfergus is that song. The lyrics are confusing and nonsensical, but it is the overall theme – love and loss – and the very visceral melody which reaches into the heart and soul of the singer and the listener – which makes this song a standout in its genre.
YouTube is blessed with many performers singing Carrickfergus. My favorites are sung by the old Irish men . They add “something” to their renditions. Give a listen to any one or all of the versions online. You can’t go wrong.